Week Past, Week Ahead: Iran — Hesitation over the Nuclear Deal

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The week was dominated by mixed reports over the implementation of the interim nuclear deal between Iran and the 5+1 Powers, with resumption of technical talks beset by cautions of slow progress.

The talks resumed in Geneva on Thursday after attempts by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry to settle any tension over last week’s US Treasury blacklisting of 19 Iranian individuals and companies for alleged support to Tehran’s nuclear program. Zarif pushed back against hard-line challenges to the deal, telling the Revolutionary Guards to back away from criticism of his approach to negotiations.

However, by Sunday, the talks had adjourned for Christmas and both Zarif and his deputy Abbas Araqchi were saying that they — with experts from the nuclear, banking, and financial sectors — were impeded by “incorrect interpretations” over the timing of Iran’s suspension of 20% enrichment of uranium and the start of relief from US-led sanctions.

The Foreign Minister warned against “delving into issues that could become troublesome and complicate the process”.

Meanwhile, Iranian security forces continued to be challenged by attacks from the Jaish ul-Adl insurgency in southeastern Iran.

And, with questions lingering how far President Rouhani is able — or willing — to go in freeing Iran’s political prisoners, there was a telling response to a meeting between European MPs and two former detainees, lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and film director Jafar Panahi.

Hard-line outlets, the Foreign Ministry, and Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani all criticized the meeting as inappropriate and a violation of protocol. Parliament even spoke of summoned the Minister of Intelligence to explain how the meeting, held in the Greek Embassy, could have been taken place.

FORECAST

The implementation of the six-month interim nuclear deal appears to be stalled by detailed questions over the timing between Iran’s limitation of uranium enrichment and the start of sanctions relief. While this by means scraps the agreement, it could open up space for critics — both in the US and in Iran — to chip away at the negotiations.

The Christmas break will give pause to both the talks and the backlash; however, discussions will need to resume and show progress early in the New Year to avoid the impression that the interim deal has effectively been suspended, even before it comes into force.

The Rouhani Government still appears to be relatively settled on the economic front, but there are signs of rising political tension, especially with the Revolutionary Guards. Instability on the border with Pakistan from attacks by Sunni insurgents could feed that tension.

The Government also appears to be facing a pre-emptive campaign against any further easing of conditions for political prisoners held after the disputed 2009 Presidential election. The European MPs’ meeting with Sotoudeh and Panahi has sparked a series of articles reiterating the case for repression of “seditious” elements who were receiving foreign support.

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